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By Chuck Hill

Chuck Hill, wine reviewer and columnist

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Chuck's Wine Reviews
of Northwest Wines

Organized by varietal




Wines of the Week Archive
Archived May 13, 2014
Published March 31, 2014

Versatile Chardonnays –
Chardonnay Styles & Quirks
Part 3 of a 3-Part Series (See Part 1)  (See Part 2)
By Chuck Hill 

Chardonnay is certainly a versatile wine.  It can be sipped by itself, enjoyed with light appetizers and snacks, and featured as an accompaniment to elegant entrees.  Understanding the production of Chardonnay wines helps consumers make choices of wines that will best suit their needs. 

Starting in the vineyard, Chardonnay responds to climate and soil by offering slightly different flavors, textures and levels of acidity.  Cooler climates (or cool vintages) produce light wines with crisp acidity and delicate flavors of apple and pear.  Dijon clone vines are selected to take advantage of cooler climates and offer additional complexity and nuances of earth and mineral.  Warmer sites bring out tropical aromas and flavors such as fig, mango and banana.  Crop levels of four to six tons per acre are common, and research indicates that further lowering of the crop level may not improve quality. 

Once the grapes reach the winery, fermentation and aging can take place in either stainless steel tanks or barrels…or both.  Frequently, primary fermentation takes place in tank, and then the wine is transferred to barrels to finish the fermentation and possibly complete a secondary, malolactic fermentation (conversion by a bacteria of harsh malic acid to less harsh lactic acid with a resulting buttery flavor developing as a side benefit).  Newer oak barrels add more woody components in both aroma and flavor, and extended aging on the lees (sur lie) continues wine contact with yeast sediment adding complex “barrel” character. 

Reviews in my columns cover as many of these flavors and aromas as I can detect (most of them), but there can be other quirks to deal with.  Some wines have residual sugar (R.S.) that is designed to offset high acid levels or add aroma or flavor components; this sweetness can be off-putting when pairing with savory foods.  Very ripe grapes impart more tannins from the skins when they are crushed and processed.  Resulting wines may have bitterness components, which collectively are known as “phenolics.”  Serve these wines with foods from the grill or flavorful cheeses.  Several “big” wines appear below – toasty, oaky, vanilla, caramel, butter; they are nice showpieces for an occasional treat. 

Maison Bleue
2012 Chardonnay, “Au Contraire”
French Creek Vineyard
Yakima Valley AVA

Jon Meuret makes his wines in the Old World style.  In Chardonnay, this means creating a wine that is reminiscent of white Burgundy or Chablis.  If you know you like this style, this wine is for you: lean, mineral, wet cement, with the slightest hint of baking spice; quite Chablis-like and a very nice food wine. (We enjoyed Peruvian Chicken from San Fernando in Lynnwood, WA.)

Seven of Hearts
2012 Chardonnay, Willakia Vineyard
Eola-Amity Hills  AVA

Winemaker Byron Dooley crafts superb single-vineyard wines from many properties in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon.  This Chardonnay hails from the Willakia Vineyard, two miles east of the town of Amity in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA.  The wine is also crafted in an Old World style, offering aromas of orchard blossom, pear, honeysuckle and light vanilla.  The palate is crisp with flavors of green apple and citrus and notes of buttered brioche and pear.  Breaking news: the Willakia Vineyard was purchased in March of 2014 by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates as a source for their Erath Vineyards property. 

Antica Terra
2011 Chardonnay, “Aurata”
Willamette Valley

The Antica Terra Vineyard is located just west of Willakia Vineyard, in a prime location of the Eola-Amity Hills. This unique vineyard tempted winemaker Maggie Harrison to come north from California where she made wine at Sine Qua Non near Santa Barbara.  Before tasting, the price raised some eyebrows among the cognoscenti.  After tasting, it was agreed that this truly unique and special bottling was a worthwhile the expenditure for those seeking rare and costly wine experiences.  Tasting the wine is as much an intellectual experience as a sensory one.  The aromas and flavors are moving targets with highlights such as buttery caramel, grapefruit and complex stone fruits mingling with unusual herbal notes.  Finally, the palate is superbly balanced with weight and acidity to accompany fine cuisine. 

Dobbes Family Estate
2011 Chardonnay
Willamette Valley AVA

Joe Dobbes’ travels through the Oregon wine industry have made him many friends and have resulted in many clients for his winemaking consultation.  Through his Dobbes Family Estate and Wines by Joe brands, he has made many more friends with consumers who enjoy his wines.  His 2011 DFE Chardonnay offers aromas of flinty mineral and grapefruit with notes of toasty oak and sur lie character.  The palate is fresh with citrus and earthy flavors finishing with creamy oak.   

Alexandria Nicole Cellars
2013 Chardonnay, Destiny Ridge Vineyard
Horse Heaven Hills

Tasters found this young Chardonnay from Alexandria Nicole Cellars to have a standout quality above all others at this stage in its development: mouthfilling.  While one can revel in the ripe fruit aromas of pear and apple mingling with notes of vanilla and hazelnut, it is the fresh, complex, lip-smacking palate that seals the deal with round flavors of banana, stone fruits, lychee and vanilla with a finish of crisp citrus.  It is another winner for Jarrod Boyle and his Destiny Ridge Vineyard. 

Rolling Bay Winery
2012 Chardonnay, Reserve
Upland Vineyard
Snipes Mtn. AVA

“Hobbies become obsessions.  Obsessions become destinies.  Alphonse de Klerk was destined to make wine.”  Alphonse’s 20 plus years of home winemaking led to the founding of Rolling Bay Winery in 2007.  Friends from his amateur days have become associates in his professional wine life including the Newhouse family, owners of Upland Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.  Rolling Bay Chardonnay offers appealing wet slate flavors nicely complemented by restrained oak and lees flavors. Creamy pear and apple flavors with balancing acidity make for a nice food wine. 

Tamarack Cellars
2012 Chardonnay
Columbia Valley AVA

Ron and Jamie Coleman founded Tamarack Cellars in 1998 in the renovated WWII-era firehouse at the Walla Walla airport.  Ron and winemaker Danny Gorden selected grapes from six different Columbia Valley vineyards to craft the 2012 Chardonnay.  The wine was barrel fermented, then aged in neutral oak, completing partial malolactic fermentation.  The wine offers aromas and flavors of nectarine and ripe apple with notes of pineapple, orchard blossom and hints of caramel on the finish. 

Novelty Hill
2012 Chardonnay, Stillwater Creek Vineyard
Columbia Valley AVA

A Northwest wine success story: great wines crafted by Mike Januik, a sleek, modern winery in the heart of Woodinville wine country, and visitor amenities to court the casual wine lover, or those seeking a venue for a celebration.  Take the opportunity to visit, or just pull the cork on this flavorful Chardonnay to enjoy complex pear and apple aromas and flavors with nuances of tropical fruit and creamy flavors of vanilla and sur lie character. 

Spangler Vineyards
2012 Chardonnay, Unoaked

This year, Pat and Loree Spangler are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their move to Oregon’s Umpqua Valley in 2004.  They fell in love with the warm weather, beautiful valley and the close-knit community that embraces family life.  This totally unoaked Chardonnay offers a nose of peach and lemon with notes of honey, and flavors of green apple, nectarine and spicy lemon. 

Ponzi Vineyards
2012 Chardonnay
Willamette Valley

As one of Oregon’s pioneering wine families, the Ponzis continue to be innovators in vineyard expansion and development, and they offer the public new tasting opportunities in the heart of wine country.  Most recently, their elegant vineyard visitor center atop the Chehalem Mountains welcomes wine lovers with sit-down tastings and food pairing.  Ponzi Vineyards’ refreshing and food-friendly Chardonnay offers aromas of peach and pear with flavors of fresh apple, lemon and hints of mineral. 

Rasa Vineyards
2011 Chardonnay, Dream Deferred
Lewis Vineyard
Yakima Valley AVA

Brothers Pinto and Billo Naravane spent two decades working in the lucrative computer industry “to satisfy family expectations,” and they finally “ditched it all” to satisfy their own love of wine and winemaking in the Walla Walla Valley.  Billo is the winemaker, having received his MS in viticulture and enology from UC Davis; he is now the adjunct professor of viticulture at WSU.  “Dream Deferred” is their first Chardonnay, crafted from grapes grown at Lewis Vineyard in the eastern Yakima Valley.  Both the nose and palate show sur lie character of mineral and spice, surrounding a core of peach and pear with toasty notes and hints of marshmallow.  A nice finish of lemony acidity brings the wine to the table to enjoy with your favorite seafood or lighter meat dishes. 

Chateau Ste. Michelle
2011 Chardonnay, Cold Creek Vineyard
Columbia Valley AVA

Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay has been a flagship of the brand for many years.  Then winemaker Mike Januik produced the first vineyard-designated Chardonnays under the Chateau Ste. Michelle label in the 1990s.  The climate of this vineyard site allows for slow ripening of fruit, thus gaining complexity and retaining important acidity.  This Chardonnay offers hints of the “big” Chardonnay character with ample toast and butter flavors, along with notes of caramel.  Ripe apple and pear lead the fruit side of the wine with hints of tropical fruit and citrus following on the finish. 

Ste. Chapelle Vineyards
2012 Chardonnay
Snake River Valley AVA

Idaho native Maurine Johnson is the winemaker for Ste. Chapelle and is a strong promoter of the Snake River Valley AVA.  “The elevation, the volcanic soil, the proximity to the river, and the warm sunny days and cool nights provide us with some of the best conditions for growing premium wine grapes.”  Maurine’s 2012 Chardonnay offers aromas of pear and citrus with notes of toast and vanilla.  The medium-full bodied palate adds flavors of tropical fruit and creamy apple along with good acidity on the finish. 

Hogue Cellars
2012 Chardonnay
Columbia Valley AVA

The Hogue Cellars is one of Washington’s first wineries of the modern era, and they continue to produce quality, value-priced wines featuring the fruit-forward character of the Columbia Valley.  Hogue Cellars Chardonnay is almost always offered at a discount and offers refreshing apple, citrus and light tropical flavors with just a kiss of oak and vanilla.  It is a very serviceable food wine for casual dining, picnics or sipping al fresco. 

Tyee Wine Cellars
2012 Chardonnay, Estate
Willamette Valley AVA

I have been a fan of Tyee Wine Cellars from the first time I visited founders Dave and Margy Buchanan at their Century Farm in Corvallis in 1985.  The winery name is an early Northwest word meaning “Chief” or “Best,” and the wine labels feature Northwest native-inspired art by Cherokee artist James Jordan.  Daughter Merrilee has been the winemaker since 2006, and the winery operation is now solar powered!  Merrilee’s fresh and juicy Chardonnay offers aromas and flavors of apple and citrus with notes of pear and baking spice. 

La Monarcha
2012 Chardonnay
Columbia Valley AVA

Victor Palencia came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1985 and grew up in the agricultural community of the Yakima Valley.  Completing high school in Prosser, he graduated from Walla Walla Community College and worked part time for several Walla Walla wineries.  His current position of winemaker is at J & S Crushing in Mattawa, parent of Jones of Washington.  Palencia Winery will be located at the Walla Walla airport winery incubator area.  His second label La Monarcha includes this fruity Chardonnay offering sweet apple and pear aromas and a palate of ripe stone fruits and a crisp citrus finish. 

Ancestry Cellars
2012 Chardonnay “Reunion”
Columbia Valley AVA

Ancestry Cellars is part of a winemakers group that met at South Seattle Community College’s Winery Production Program.  Sharing the production space in Woodinville’s winery warehouse district, the group consists of Ancestry Cellars, Lauren Ashton Cellars, Savage Grace Wines and William Grassie Wine Estates.  Ancestry's Jason and Erin Morin began by making wine to share with family members and believe in family traditions and the importance of family in everyday life.  The 2012 Chardonnay offers aromas and flavors of pear and apple with notes of honey and butterscotch from barrel fermentation.  

Wines from other areas: 

Wairau River Family Estate
2012 Chardonnay
Marlborough, NZ

Phil and Chris Rose are the proprietors of the Wairau River Estate, established in 1978 in the Marlborough region of New Zealand.  With the 2012 vintage, the Roses have included Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in the portfolio of wines distributed in the U.S., joining Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  The wine offers enticing aromas of stone fruits and citrus with hints of orchard blossom and anise.  On the palate, look for flavors of peach and lime zest with notes of vanilla wafer and toast. 

William Hill Estate
2012 Chardonnay
Napa Valley

This wine fits into the category of a “big” style Chardonnay.  Produced at the William Hill Estate on the Silverado Bench on the east side of the Napa Valley, the wine offers aromas of ripe tree fruit, toasty oak and spicy baked apple.  The palate shows flavors of rich apple and caramel with vanilla and coconut leading to a rich finish with barrel flavors. 

Robert Mondavi Winery
2012 Chardonnay
Napa Valley

The majority of the grapes for this flagship Mondavi Chardonnay came from the cooler areas of the southern Napa Valley… Carneros, East Napa, Oak Knoll.  In the Mondavi tradition, part of the wine was barrel fermented in French oak and a smaller portion (one-third) was cold fermented in stainless steel to retain brightness and purity of fruit.  The result is a nicely integrated wine with aromas and flavors of mineral, Meyer lemon and notes of toasty oak. 

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
2012 Chardonnay, Arcadia Vineyard
Napa Valley

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gained international fame when their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon beat several French first-growth Bordeaux in the 1979 Paris tasting.  Owner/winemaker Warren Winiarski continued to run the winery until he sold it in 2007 to the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle.  Winiarski retained ownership of his Arcadia Vineyard, which is the major source of fruit for this Chardonnay.  This delicate wine offers complex aromas and flavors of pear, apple and vanilla with notes of mineral, hazelnut and spice.  

2012 Chardonnay
California (Folio Wines, Mondavi Family)

This value-priced bottling is crafted from grapes grown in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County, California.  Winemaker Tony Coltrin barrel fermented the wine creating a rich wine with barrel and lees character highlighted by aromas and flavors of butterscotch, cream and tropical fruits.

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